On 26 April 1941, the day before the German army raised the swastika over the Acropolis, Homer Davis, president of Athens College, was entrusted by the Greek War Relief Association with changing two million dollars into drachmas – money raised by his fellow Greek-Americans. Warned that the money would be delivered in small denominations, he was accompanied to the Bank of Greece by three helpers bearing a steamer trunk and two large suitcases, only to discover that the bank’s supply of currency had been taken by the government when it evacuated to Crete three days earlier. Davis waited while the bank’s board deliberated whether to validate obsolete notes stored in its vaults. They eventually agreed to do so, but such was the volume that the trunk and suitcases proved inadequate and some of the notes had to be bundled up in the party’s raincoats. The haul was deposited, in the nick of time, in the US Legation.
The tripartite German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation of Greece set in train one of the most virulent hyperinflations ever recorded, five thousand times more severe than the Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941. The exchange rate for the gold sovereign in the autumn of 1944, shortly after the liberation, stood at 170 trillion drachmas. By that time, Davis’s pile of notes would scarcely have been enough to buy a loaf of bread.
Commentators on the current crisis in Greece routinely pay obeisance to the notion that Europe owes the idea of democracy to ancient Greece – an arguable proposition. Some go further. Larry Elliott, the economics editor of the Guardian, writing of a Greek tragedy in the making, invoked in a single article not merely Greece as the birthplace of democracy but also the torment of Sisyphus and the flight of Icarus. To present-day Greeks these classical analogies have little resonance, save to remind them how little is known outside Greece of their recent history. Events that occurred within living memory shape reactions to their current plight. In particular, they bitterly resent the fact that it is a German who is leading the call for measures of austerity, and that it is the German tabloid press which pours scorn on ‘idle’ Greeks who supposedly think of little else but early retirement on a fat pension, when any Greek over the age of seventy will have lived through not only stratospheric hyperinflation but one of the worst famines in the modern history of Europe – a famine that was the direct consequence of the wartime occupation. Some, as children, will have had their growth permanently stunted by inadequate nutrition.
The occupation was established following a textbook Blitzkrieg invasion. Within months, the corpses of famine victims were being loaded every morning onto carts for burial in mass graves. It’s estimated that between 1941 and 1943 as many as 200,000 died of starvation. In January 1942, Harold Nicolson recorded in his diary that he would rather send a hundred tons of grain to Greece than write an immortal work. ‘What does even the Symposium matter compared to the death by hunger of two hundred Greeks a day?’ Oxfam has its origins in the efforts of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief to do something about the food crisis in Greece. During the course of a ‘Greek Week’ in October 1943, £12,700 was collected, equivalent in today’s prices to a quarter of a million pounds. Pressure, particularly from the large Greek-American community, led the British government – somewhat reluctantly – partially to lift its blockade of German-occupied Europe so as to allow food to be shipped to Greece under the auspices of the Red Cross.
Famine and the accompanying hyperinflation were only two of the calamities that befell occupied Greece. More than 80 per cent of the long-established, largely Spanish-speaking Jewish community was killed, mostly in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the space of a few weeks, beginning in March 1943, some 49,000 Greek Jews, mainly from Salonica, ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’, were packed into cattle trucks and shipped to Poland. The image of two Jewish Greek children who were drowned in a pit of excrement, testimony that emerged in a trial of guards at the Majdanek concentration camp, symbolised the fate of the wider community.
During the three and a half years of the occupation, units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS caused immeasurable havoc. When Sture Linnér, a member of the Swedish Red Cross mission, visited the village of Distomo shortly after its inhabitants had been massacred in June 1944, he came across bodies, some still showing signs of life, nailed with bayonets to the avenue of trees which led up to the village. More than five hundred males were executed in Kalavryta; 317 inhabitants were slaughtered in the village of Kommeno. If a German were attacked or killed it was decreed that between fifty and a hundred hostages were to be killed in reprisal. Torture was routine. To deter attempts to sabotage railway lines, hostages were placed in open freight wagons covered with barbed wire, the notorious klouves, so that they would receive the full force of any explosive charge.
As the Germans pulled out of Greece in October 1944 they engaged in a scorched earth policy. The Corinth Canal, for example, was not reopened to navigation until 1949. In The Sacrifices of Greece in the Second World War, a book published by the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1946, Constantine Doxiadis calculated that 1,200,000 Greeks were made homeless and five thousand schools wrecked during the occupation. Many Greeks regard German war reparations as inadequate and attempts are still being made to revive old claims, not least by the villagers of Distomo.
Few of the war criminals responsible for these atrocities were brought to justice after the war. General Wilhelm Speidel, the military commander in Greece, and thus the man who had overall responsibility for the crimes committed by his troops, received a twenty-year sentence at Nuremberg. Three years later he was released. Max Merten, who had been closely involved in the fate of the Salonica Jewish community, was arrested in 1957 when on an ill-advised trip to Greece. He was charged with war crimes and sentenced to 25 years but immediately pardoned by the then prime minister, Constantine Karamanlis, who was anxious not to jeopardise the prospect of German aid. Back in Germany, he was compensated by the Federal government for the time he had spent in a Greek prison.
Few would insist that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the children, and postwar Germany has made impressive efforts to exorcise the demons of its recent past. So it is unfair, though scarcely surprising, that cartoons in the Greek press, protest banners and Lenten carnival figures lampoon Angela Merkel as a Nazi. But the bitterness, indignation and frustration that the cartoons reflect should be understood in the context of some of the worst atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht anywhere in occupied Europe.
Despite the fact that the UK is not a member of the eurozone, David Cameron has joined with Merkel in hectoring the recalcitrant Greeks. Not so long ago Cameron, on his first visit to the US as prime minister, declared in an interview with ABC News that, in 1940, Britain was the junior partner to America in the anti-Nazi struggle. The fact is that, in 1940, after the fall of France, Britain’s only active ally in Europe was Greece. A few weeks after the onset of the Blitz, the spectacle of the Greek army pushing Italian would-be invaders of their country back into Albania excited an extraordinary wave of philhellenic enthusiasm. The Germans were forced to come to the aid of the Italians and, in April 1941, they overwhelmed the British, Australian and New Zealand expeditionary force that had been dispatched in a doomed attempt to support the hard-pressed Greek army. Many Greeks risked, and not a few lost, their lives in helping British stragglers and escapees to reach the Middle East.
Christine Lagarde has also joined the chorus of critics. She is certainly right to point to massive tax evasion on the part of Greek shipowners, wealthy businessmen and the self-employed, particularly lawyers and doctors (as few as a third of the latter declare incomes of more than 12,000 euros) as one of the principal reasons for the current debt mountain. Greece really is a country in which only the little people pay taxes. It isn’t Lagarde’s doing that she enjoys a large tax-free salary as head of the IMF, but it is no wonder that her remark that it is now ‘payback time’ for Greece causes nothing but resentment. Meanwhile, a word of contrition, if not apology, for German war crimes that are still a living memory (from Merkel), and a recognition of past Greek sacrifices in the common struggle against fascism, which are likewise still a living memory (from Cameron), would not come amiss.